An old post of mine is causing a stir, some folks calling me out for my on-the-record dissing of wannabes and pretend writers.
I guess it’s November, the silly season as far as creative writing goes, everyone and his parakeet sitting with fingers poised over their keyboards, knowing they’ve only got one month (30 days!) to get started on the literary masterpiece they’ve been nurturing many a long year. Their one shot a fame and fortune, the right to thrust out their chest and proudly proclaim: “I…am…an…author.”
NaNoWriMo. National Novel Writing Month. Your chance to discover what the life of a real writer is like, a limited time offer whereby you can get an idea of the hardships and tribulations your literary heroes face without, y’know, having to work too hard at it. And better yet, it’s free…
As my pal Mike Cane has rightly pointed out, playing at being a writer for 30 days is bad enough but then some of these idjits actually seek to publish their wretched scribbling. Excrete a malodorous e-book or, at the very least, dump long excerpts of it on their blogs or places like Scribd and Smashwords. Their deftless whack at a romance novel or derivative vampire potboiler or, yes, yet another zombie apocalypse.
Look, kids, you wanna write, write. Seriously. Have at it. Sit down and write your story/novella/book but then work on it, edit and grind away at it tirelessly, revise it with utter ruthlessness. For months and months. When you’re sick and tired of it, show it to someone whose opinion you trust, swallow deep, accept any criticisms they offer and then…back to work again.
DON’T post excerpts of your masterpiece in progress. You might be tempted but please spare the rest of us your early drafts. Save ’em for the archives.
DON’T rush it out as an e-book just because the process is quick, cheap and easy. Invest the time, make your manuscript as flawless as a perfectly cut diamond. Polish it until it sparkles.
DON’T take on airs of a professional, published author. Laurels must be earned.
DO join forums where you can share unpublished work with other writers, get more feedback from peers.
DO read and I mean seek out the best authors, not hacks and their semi-literate drivel.
DO remember you’re part of a literary legacy extending back centuries. You’re seeking to join a fellowship of authors who suffered pain, obscurity, poverty, despair, personal trauma, yet never once abdicated their responsibilities as artists and visionaries. They refused to compromise or release sub-standard/unfinished work. Anything they put their name on had their stamp of approval…and still retains its original relevance and power despite the passage of years.
The singer is gone, the song lives on.
* * * * * *
I’ll admit that I’ve been a fierce opponent of NaNoWriMo right from the moment I learned of its existence. I approach the subject from the point of view of a professional writer with over 25 years in the harness. Writing is a daily activity to me—I’ve made a lot of sacrifices, paid a big price (physically, mentally, spiritually) for my vocation/obsession. I take the craft of writing very, very seriously.
And I retain all the respect in the world for colleagues, young and old, who pursue their literary calling with diligence and consistency, not just 30 days of the year but every day, year after year. I don’t care how many books you’ve sold, where you live or what your field happens to be. If you’re committed to the regular practice of writing, expend enormous time and energy (whatever you can spare) improving in your craft, showing unstinting reverence for the printed word, you are deserving of the honorific “author” and I’m delighted to make your acquaintance.
Now, let’s go out and stomp some wannabes…
This is a cartoon by Mike Twohy—my pal Robert Runte sent it (so blame him, wannabes).
Peter Darbyshire has just published an article in the Vancouver Province, discussing the future of books and publishing—you’ll find it here. He was good enough to ask me about my experiences as a long-standing independent author and publisher (21 years and counting) and I was only too happy to oblige.
Smart man, Peter, a guy who knows what he’s talking about. He’s had his own adventures in the publishing biz and is familiar with the new technologies that are allowing authors the chance to by-pass traditional gate-keepers and take their work directly to readers, via e-books and print on demand efforts.
As I wrote to Peter in a followup note, one of my fears is that while these technologies may empower good authors turned off by a corporate system that slots and niches books, producing dozens of copy-cat knockoffs of popular titles, it also accords terrible scribblers the opportunity to foist their mindless, adolescent crap on the world. Thus, the marketplace is currently overwhelmed by dreadful vampire porn, brain-eating zombies and godawful tripe that wouldn’t pass muster in a high school yearbook. Anyone can call themselves a writer these days and with a minimum investment can produce a decent-looking book with their name on the cover. “Look at me! Aren’t I great? And you all thought I was a loser!”
I recently posted similar views on a couple of sites frequented by amateur writers and wannabes and was soundly taken to task for my arrogant insistence that there is a difference between good writing and bad writing. One remark I’ve heard a number of times is that “we live in a post-literate society and the old standards no longer apply”. You know, standards like good spelling, syntax that isn’t tortured beyond recognition, an ear for dialogue, an aversion to over-writing, etc. etc.
In the old days, these dingbats would be working in the rightly discredited sub-sub-genre of “fan fiction”, read by a few geeks with too much time on their hands and a roomful of Star Wars action figures. Now they can inflict their offal on a far wider audience, pricing their e-books at 99 cents to draw the most possible readers and congratulating themselves for their genius.
It’s truly sickening.
I do not want to be lumped in with folks who have no respect for the printed word, who wish to emulate literary idols like Stephenie Meyer, James Patterson…the very worst of the worst. I revere great writing and devote enormous time and effort to producing the finest, most literate work I can; to hear these people crowing about how many e-books they’ve sold, how much money they’ve made, goes against everything I believe in, as an author and an artist. Their attitudes revolt me, their “writing” makes me shudder, their success impresses me not one whit. They are bottom-feeders and pornographers and if that’s what sells these days, the literary world is in more trouble than I ever imagined.
Now, let me be clear—when I say that, I’m talking about a certain segment of people, who meet a very specific criteria. I’m not referring to “young writers”, “aspiring writers” or “beginning writers”; those are entirely different categories (to my mind). Aspiring authors are humble and don’t take on airs. They possess few, if any, professional credentials; they might have a couple of poems or short stories published or filled dozens of notebooks with their secret writings over the years, but they certainly make no claim to any kind of status.
The wannabe is far less circumspect. These folks make all sorts of exalted statements and assign themselves great prominence in the literary community. They’re very quick to proffer advice, usually in the form of smug, self-assured pronouncements that speak of enormous (alas, unrecognized) talent and a vast breadth of wisdom and worldly experience (ersatz). That they have virtually no standing among accomplished, professional, full-time writers is entirely beside the point. Why, they’ve written dozens of books (no one has read) and have been putting words on paper all their lives (no one has noticed). They offer their services as experienced editors and are quick to thrust their work on you, in order to prove they should be taken seriously. God help anyone who questions their undisputed brilliance.
The on-line universe has been a bonanza for wannabes. If they have written anything—some of them, like the proverbial hundred monkeys at keyboards, are amazingly industrious, despite their utter lack of talent—they can post every word of it on their blog and to hell with the editors who never responded to their submissions or the people in that stupid writing group who said their suite of poems about losing their virginity was “childish and cliched”, “needs a lot of work” or just “ARE YOU KIDDING?!!!”.
Sometimes I’ll skim through some of the literary sites in the blogosphere and far more often than not I’m appalled by the really sub-literate tripe that people post on a public forum. Puerile verse and poorly rendered soft porn/romance and slightly fictionalized episodes from real life. Juvenilia. Artlessly composed and stupefyingly dull. Painful and embarrassing stuff, the sort of thing you might find in the locked diary of an emotionally disturbed adolescent. Some are clearly cries for help: look at me…aren’t I special…I feel things more deeply than most people…love me…I’m lonely…no one understands me…I need affirmation…
There might be a few sympathetic comments left by either kind-hearted readers…or fellow wannabes offering cautious praise before inviting them over to their site (presumably to see what real writing is all about).
I have heard it said that the explosion of on-line writing has led to an explosion of bad writing and I have to admit that this is demonstrably true. The vast majority of what people post on the web is dreadful, godawful stuff, unfit for human consumption. The lousy rep e-books have is well-deserved (most of the time).
One of my roles as an indie writer who publishes exclusively on the net is to work hard to demonstrate that cyberspace is not solely the domain of amateur hacks and weekend scribblers. There are some truly gifted writers out there, producing original and ground-breaking work. Some, like myself, have chosen to put their writing on-line because of the desperate state traditional publishing is in these days. These are experienced authors with real world credentials and undeniable literary chops. By maintaining the highest standards, tirelessly subjecting our work to the most intense scrutiny, editing ruthlessly, eschewing conventions and formula, we wish to reward intelligent, discerning readers who are tired of the status quo and are exploring other venues, seeking alternative visions and fresh perspectives.
But it can be disheartening for readers, sifting through the thousands upon thousands of blogs and literary sites, trying to find something of value. And that’s why a credible on-line critical community is required. With the newspapers cutting or drastically paring down their book sections, I’m hoping more good critics will start web sites and help single out particular writers who shine amidst the dross…and dismiss those who don’t make the grade.
And it would be most helpful if amateur writers used the new technologies to better develop their skills before they foist their cringe-worthy efforts on the rest of us. I’m talking about searching out like-minded souls, joining on-line writing groups and vetting their work with a diverse assortment of fellow writers (from around the world), getting feedback. Sharing their work privately, rather than punishing the general public, exposing not their beautiful, unblemished souls (as they hope) but their ineptitude. If you truly wish to be seen as someone with designs on being a serious writer, worthy of respect, give some thought to what you’re making public—believe me, you’re doing no one any favors if it’s garbage. You’re hurting yourself…and you’re making it more difficult for your talented, hard-working colleagues to reach potential readers.
Naturally, these words of caution will not sit well with wannabes. They’ll sniff that I’m being “elitist” and that the internet belongs to everyone. Unfortunately, the democratization of the web means that an entrenched cult of amateurism has developed and these people guard their domains like pitbulls. They brandish their imaginary credentials and howl in outrage should anyone refuse to defer to their alleged expertise. Why, their writing has been read by thousands of people (who knows how many?) and they’ve published everything from young adult novels to a ten part vampire series, not to mention their “erotic” fiction and two volumes of poetry about a beloved Pekinese that recently went to doggie heaven (all of it available in e-book format, listed on a site with a thousand other books no one in their right senses would attempt to read).
I plead with new and aspiring and upcoming writers to avoid such a ridiculous mindset: recognize your limitations, don’t publish precipitously, before your work is ready for public perusal and consumption. Have respect for the legacy of fine writers and great literature that preceded you; after all, you initially dreamed of becoming a writer because of the joy and succor and inspiration the printed word gives you. Your favorite authors wrote hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of words before they had mastered their craft to the extent that they were, at last, worthy of publication.
Why, in God’s name, should it be any different for you?